WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2007
Staying on Top

Feb. 14, 2007

What a difference a year makes. On the heels of one of the top performances by a JU squad, the Dolphins are reaping the benefits of hard work, determination and above all, team chemistry.

With injuries plaguing the outcome of the previous two seasons, head coach Terry Alexander and his squad stayed healthy and made a statement.

Overall, the Dolphins tallied the second most wins in program history (43), won the program's first A-Sun regular-season title and reached the NCAA Regionals for the seventh time under Alexander's tenure.

"We knew we had a good offense but our pitching stepped up for us in a big way," said Alexander, who earned conference "Coach of the Year" honors. "With our starters able to go deep into the game, we saved our bullpen and gave our bats a chance to win games."

Leading the pack for the Dolphins was All-America selection Matt Dobbins. A position player as a freshman, Dobbins took off under the guidance of pitching coach Tim Montez to tie for the most wins in the nation (12).

Offensively, the Dolphins finished with the second most hits in program history (692), while third baseman Daniel Murphy batted .398 en route to conference "Player of the Year" accolades.

With such a successful year, how do follow suit? Try beefing up the pitching staff for starters. Although the staff came through in 2006, the depth of the unit was always a question as the year progressed.

"Even with the success of our starters, we ran out of gas by the time we reached the postseason," Alexander said. "To counter this, we brought in several quality arms to not only pitch, but serve a particular role on the staff."

Along with the return of Dobbins and D.J. Ackley to the staring rotation, the JU coaching staff brought in an additional eight pitchers ranging from junior college to high school to help solidity depth for the future.

Offensively, the coaching staff has to deal with the loss of Murphy (drafted by the New York Mets in the 13th round) and first baseman Gordie Gronkowski (.353, 10 HR, 51 RBI) in the three and four hole.

The solution, look for a group of bats to off-set the loss instead of trying to replace them with one person. JU will look for returning outfielders Pete Clifford and Mike McCallister to lead the offense while newcomers Kevin Ferreira (redshirt) and Ryan McArdle (transfer from Florida State) will add some more punch.

"With the loss of Murphy and Gordie (106 combined RBI), we have to find new ways to score runs," said Alexander. " If we can stay consistent and get the big hits, we can try to replace them as a group."

Along with replacing players and addressing depth on the roster, JU will also have to deal with the prospect of being picked to repeat as A-Sun champions by the conference coaches.

"We are going to have a battle on our hands every game because people are going to be gunning for us," Alexander said. "We have to realize that we have a target on our backs and we have to work that much harder to reestablish ourselves in the conference."

THE PITCHERS

A constantly changing group form week to week in 2006, Dobbins and Ackley will be teamed with a plethora of arms to help stabilize the unit. Dobbins will enter his junior season as the ace of the staff after earning All-American honors in his first full season on the mound. An offseason of focus, as a pitcher first, should pave the way for a solid follow up campaign.

Ackley was the workhorse of the staff after finishing with a 7-4 mark and a 4.60 ERA while striking out 89 batters in 109.2 innings. The senior will fill the No. 2 role in 2007 will providing leadership to a brand new staff.

Junior transfer Matt Gardner will start out as the No. 3 starter after two successful seasons at Chabot College. In two seasons with the Gladiators, he earned back-to-back all-Coast Conference honors while leading the squad to a combined 62-28 record.

Filling in the fourth spot in the rotation will be freshman Glen Witkowksi. A two-time all-state honoree, he led Flanagan High School to two state titles by going a combined 26-0 with a 1.36 ERA.

Sophomores Garrett Dunlap (two starts) and Tim Brown (six starts) along with freshman Carson Andrew could also see time as a mid-week starter as the season progresses.

The bullpen will also provide significant depth and options for the coaching staff in 2007. In long relief, Brown, Dunlap and junior David Yates will handle the middle innings.

Brown had 17 appearances as a middle reliever while Dunlap had a strong fall. Yates, who sat out most of last season due to injury, has also shown significant improvement in the fall.

In the setup role will be junior transfers Adam Rapoza and Chris Rusler. Rapoza earned consecutive Mid-Florida Conference all-star team nods after leading Santa Fe Community College in ERA each year. Rusler led Hutchinson Community College to a pair of conference titles and a Junior College World Series appearance as a reliever.

Sophomore Josh Burrows and freshman Jason Hooper will also be called upon in matchup situations.

Junior fireballer Matt Davis is penciled in as the closer but will not take the mound until March. Last season, Davis led the squad with a 6-2 mark to go with six saves in 16 appearances, including a save in the NCAA Regionals against Sacred Heart.

Senior Justin Young will assume the closing duties in his absence and will most likely move into the starting rotation upon his return. Young stepped to the mound for the first time in his career last season and tallied a 2-2 record with a team-best 1.66 ERA to goal along with three saves and 26 strikeouts in 38 innings.

THE CATCHERS

Two seniors, two sophomores and a freshman will make up another area of depth for the Dolphins, this time behind the plate.

Senior Donnie Vickers and sophomore Brad Simmons will platoon the position for the second consecutive year.

Last year the duo, combined for 44 hits, 13 doubles, four home runs and 31 RBI while directing a patch-work pitching staff to its fifth best winning percentage (.693) in program history and the lowest ERA (4.19) since 1995.

Senior Jimmy Potucek, who was hindered by an injured wrist and lower leg last year, has fully recovered and is pushing for playing time. Redshirt-sophomore Stefan Hertel and freshman Alex Swenson will also add depth to the position.

THE INFIELD

The infield will see a new face at first for the first time in four years but a crew of veterans will make up the remainder of the starting lineup. Florida State senior transfer Ryan McArdle will take over first base for Gordie Gronkowski. After playing two years at Tallahassee Community College, McArdle batted .279 last season for the Seminoles.

Senior Logan James will return to second base duties after making 31 starts at the position last season. James, who is one of the vocal leaders of the squad, batted .250 with 36 hits and seven sacrifice bunts despite being slowed by an ankle injury.

Redshirt-junior Matt Lopez will once again team with James at shortstop. A skillful fielder, Lopez also batted .322 with a career-high 75 hits and 44 RBI.

Senior Thomas LePage will start at third base full time in 2007 after junior Daniel Murphy signed with the New York Mets over the summer. LePage, who started the final 11 games due to a Murphy knee injury, had a career year at the plate with a .322 average, 72 hits, 12 doubles, two home runs and 44 RBI.

Redshirt junior Ben Kerr will serve as the utility infielder for the Dolphins but will primarily see time at third base. Kerr will play his first season with the squad after transferring from UNC-Asheville. Gardner will back up Lopez at short in an emergency situation due to his role in the starting rotation. Freshman Chuck Opachich will backup James at second.

Redshirt-freshman Alex Martinez could also see time at first base.

THE OUTFIELD

A trio of returners and a talented transfer will roam the outfield for the Dolphins in 2007.

Senior Pete Clifford will return to left field after leading the Santa Barbara Foresters to a 2006 National Baseball Congress National Championship by batting .335 with a team-high five triples, six home runs, 50 RBI and a .632 slugging percentage in 44 games. Last season with the Dolphins, he batted .317 with 83 hits 21 doubles, five home runs and 21 stolen bases.

Senior Mike McCallister will return to right field after flourishing with the Dolphins in his first season. After two years at Alabama, McCallister batted .333 with 74 hits, 14 doubles, a team-high 10 home runs and 54 RBI.

Redshirt-junior Kevin Ferriera will make his Dolphin debut in center field. A natural ball hawk and a speedster on the base, Ferriera will also serve as the Dolphins' first natural lead-off hitter since Larry-Best Berfet in 2004.

Junior John Tiner will be the primary backup at each spot in the outfield and will see significant action. In 40 games, Tiner did not commit an error in the field.

Sophomore Dan Maier and junior Stewart Kelly could also see time in the outfield while senior Justin Young and sophomore Brad Simmons can be available in emergency situations.